Many benefits of the keto diet are well-researched, and accepted. Studies show a low-carb, keto-style eating plan can promote weight loss, encourage fat loss, tamp down inflammation, support brain health, protect the heart and possibly reduce the risk of certain cancers. But the impact of very-low-carb diets on gut health is less clear, with studies showing a keto diet can either harm or help your digestive system and microbiome – the collection of microbes that live in your intestines.
Here’s the skinny on the keto diet and gut health.
The keto diet can encourage “bad” gut bacteria
Research suggests diets rich in saturated fat promote harmful gut bacteria and lessen beneficial bacteria. Low-carb diets with higher quantities of fat are thought to disrupt the microbiome in ways that enhance inflammation and increase the risk of metabolic diseases. Higher intakes of animal protein – which is common on keto – also disrupt the microbiome, and red meat in particular can promote harmful gut microbes.
Because the keto diet restricts or eliminates high-fiber foods like legumes, grains and starchy vegetables, it can be lacking in fiber critical for a healthy balance of gut bacteria. Plus, sugar alcohols, common on keto plans, can cause bloating, gas and other belly woes.
Keto’s low-carb approach could combat inflammation
The keto diet may also benefit digestive health. Low-carb diets decrease markers of inflammation better than low-fat diets – a critical factor in inflammatory digestive disorders, like Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis – and have been shown to improve symptoms of IBS. Some studies also suggest keto diets can support the microbiome and lessen concentrations of pathogenic gut bacteria.
The beneficial effects aren’t just about the diet itself, either. Ketone bodies, which are compounds created when carbs are in short supply, directly impact the microbiome in ways that ultimately suppress inflammation.
The keto diet also eliminates some leading FODMAPS, or hard-to-digest carbohydrates that can be fermented by gut bacteria. This can cause gas, bloating and pain in sensitive people. While the keto diet isn’t a FODMAP-free plan, it is lower in common high-FODMAP foods, and research shows keto diets can improve symptoms of IBS and other digestive disorders.
Taking a ketotarian approach is another option that’s great for your gut. It’s a combination of the keto diet and a vegan, vegetarian or pescatarian diet, and it puts plants at the center of your meals. Going ketotarian gives you the flexibility to eat more vegetables instead of focusing on animal proteins or red meat. Because of its emphasis on plant-based foods, the ketotarian approach can reduce inflammation even more than the traditional keto diet, leading to even more gut-friendly health benefits.
The bottom line
Is keto good or bad for your gut? It all depends on how you’re interpreting it. A diet high in bacon and artificially sweetened keto snacks, for example, won’t do your belly any favors. However, if you’re cutting out heavy carbs, you can achieve ketosis and positively impact your gut’s health and microbiome.
If you’re looking to try the keto diet without disrupting your gut, it’s important to stick to a clean keto approach instead of falling into “dirty keto” habits. Clean keto brings together the principles of clean eating with the guidelines of the keto diet, focusing on plant-based foods, fish, nuts, seeds and other kinds of whole foods. Dirty keto, on the other hand, is all about junk fats and processed foods – all of which can have a harmful effect on your gut.
How to support your gut on the keto diet
Follow these tips to support digestive health and keep your microbiome happy on a keto diet:
- Avoid processed meats like salami, sausage, hot dogs and bacon, and eat red meat in moderation. Focus on leaner meats, and include fatty fish for protein (plus omega-3 fats). Always choose grass-fed or pasture-raised beef, poultry and eggs. And if you do eat bacon, stick to uncured varieties free from added nitrates.
- Minimize saturated animal fat, emphasize monounsaturated fats, and stick to plant-based saturated fats, like coconut oil.
- Choose the most nutrient-dense fruits and vegetables, like kale, spinach, cauliflower, cabbage, tomatoes, broccoli, Brussels sprouts and berries.
- Focus on fiber to support beneficial gut bacteria: blackberries, raspberries, chia seeds, flax seeds, artichokes and broccoli are rich in fiber, as well as protective antioxidants.
- Add fermented foods like kimchi, sauerkraut and unsweetened full-fat yogurt to support a healthy microbiome. For extra gut support, take a high-quality probiotic supplement.
- Minimize or avoid artificial sweeteners and sugar alcohols, especially if you’re sensitive; stick to monk fruit and stevia.
- Keep “keto-friendly” packaged snacks to a minimum. Base your diet on whole, unprocessed foods; reserve packaged snacks as an occasional treat.
And when you do snack (because you will), stick to the least-processed versions. Look for those high in nutrients, low in sugar alcohols and free from artificial ingredients. Choose organic, grass-fed, pasture-raised and sustainably sourced whenever possible.
The cleanest keto snacks
Here are some of the cleanest on-the-go keto snacks:
- Artisana Organics Raw Almond Butter Snack Packs: These convenient, snack-sized squeeze pouches of almond butter are Clean Food Certified R.A.W. – but they’re also super tasty and easy to spread!
- Hu Everything Grain-Free Crackers: Crunchy, flavorful, and made with just 9g net carbs, these crackers are free of gluten, refined starches, dairy and added sugars.
- Moon Cheese: These crispy cheesy bites are full of protein and calcium, but they feature just 1g of carbs per serving. You’ll have trouble putting these 100 percent cheddar cheese snacks down.
- Goodfish Crispy Salmon Skins: This unique snack food is made from dried and fried Alaskan wild-caught sockeye salmon. Made with nothing but salmon skin, palm oil and sea salt, each serving has zero carbs and 10g of protein.
- Navitas Organic Cacao Nibs: Highly nutritious and made with nothing but natural, minimally processed cacao nibs, you’ll love the deep chocolatey flavor and the satisfying crunch of this snack.
- Dang Coconut Chips: Made with “no fake stuff” and plant-based ingredients, these crunchy and naturally sweet chips are keto-certified. You can eat them alone or use them as a textured topping for yogurt, smoothies and more.
- Oloves: Ever thought about grabbing a to-go pack of olives? Oloves makes for a unique snack that’s juicy, tangy and natural.
- Maple Hill Grass-Fed Greek Yogurt: Packing 12g of protein per serving, this filling Greek yogurt is thick and creamy – and it features no additives, antibiotics or added hormones.
If you’re giving the keto diet a try and want to keep your gut in mind, keep reading: